British troops pull out of Basra base

IRAQI soldiers manned the gates of a central Basra base today after the bulk of British tanks and troops pulled out overnight.

Monday, 3rd September 2007, 9:12 am
Updated Monday, 3rd September 2007, 9:37 am

The move will leave Iraq’s second-largest city without multinational forces for the first time since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Britain said the base - built on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s elaborate palace complex - had been a magnet for insurgent attacks with daily mortar and rocket attacks, which Iraqi commanders said they hoped would now cease.

“The British troops have pulled out from the presidential palaces,” said Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, the top Iraqi commander in the area.

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Maj. Mike Schearer, a spokesman for British forces in Basra, refused to provide specific details on the pullout for security reasons, but indicated the move was not yet complete.

British forces will operate from Basra Air Station, but “retain security responsibility for Basra until we hand over to provincial Iraqi control, which we anticipate in the autumn,” an MOD statement said.

People on the streets of Basra today cheered the departure of the British.

“We reject any strangers and they are colonialists,” said resident Rudha Muter. “We are pleased that the Iraqi army are now taking over the situation - we as an Iraqi people reject occupation, we reject colonialism - we want our freedom.”

The pull-out from Basra marks the end of a full-time British presence in the city since 2003 and is bound to be seen as symbolic.

Basra is the last of five provinces in the UK’s sphere of operations in southern Iraq yet to move to local Iraqi control, with British forces left in an “overwatch” role.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has come under increasing pressure to announce a timetable for the complete withdrawal of UK troops from Iraq - but has refused to do so.